There are more ways to convey a message than just words. Sometimes, nonverbal clues are even more important, and differ dramatically from culture to culture.
Some gestures and expressions appropriate in the U.S. and Canada are considered rude, even insulting, in other cultures. Nonverbal communications can mean the difference between success and failure in business dealings, as well as developing friendships and relationships.
While formal cultural training is the best, most effective way to prepare for global cultural success, you can also do online research on your own to know the basics.
Here are some examples:
Adults in many cultures, including in North America, keep a certain distance between themselves and people with whom they are speaking. In France, however, being in close proximity to another in considered a sign of friendship. Having less personal space is common in Mexico and Latin American, Brazil and the Middle East.
It’s also not unusual to see Italian men greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, but with a strong, firm handshake with strangers, as with North Americans. Japanese and South Koreans use a much lighter shake. The French are hesitate to offer their hands to someone of superior rank.
North Americans generally smile when meeting strangers, which is viewed suspiciously in other parts of the world. In Russia, for example, smiling upon meeting it is considered rude. In some other regions, it is thought a sign of weakness.
Also, when sitting posture is very important in many cultures. In many countries, France for example, feet remain on the floor and it is considered rude to lean back in your chair. It is also very insulting in France and many other parts of the world (Asia, the Middle East and much of Europe) to rest your feet on a desk, table or chair.
In much of the world, North America for example, punctuality is considered important. Not so in some Latin American countries, and Mexico. Don’t be surprised or angry if someone arrives up to 30 minutes later.
Also, it’s not uncommon in Mexico for people to take some time talking and learning about someone before launching into the business agenda. Relationships count a lot there. In other countries, including Russia and Switzerland, they want to get right down to business. During meetings, North Americans, French and Russians often interrupt to ask questions, raise issues or even argue and debate. This is simply not done in some other cultures, including in parts of Asia and particularly in China and Japan. The Chinese culture is non-confrontational. The Chinese rarely show their disapproval in public, which instead may be expressed by simply being non-committal.
Eye contact is very important, and very different, in many cultures. In North and Latin America, it is also a sign of respect to look someone directly in the eyes. Not doing so can be viewed as a sign of weakness, lack of self-confidence, or even that someone has something to hide. In some parts of Asia, Japan for example, consistent eye contact is considered very offensive.
It’s always a plus when meeting to speak the same language. But even if you are, people will still be listening through the filter of their culture.